Andersonville Prison

Throughout the Civil War, there was no shortage of suffering on the battlefield, but even the newest soldier knew that being taken prisoner was likely to lead to more suffering. While a Confederate prisoner may have reasonably expected that he could obtain improved rations in a northern prison—particularly as the war progressed and rebel supplies had become increasingly stretched—a Union soldier could precisely expect the converse: that if he were taken prisoner, he would receive fewer and poorer rations than that of his starving adversary. While any rebel military prison was expected to be an unwelcome place because of smaller rations and numerous other factors, none has had the enduring reputation of being the site of vileness as the prison situated in Andersonville, Georgia, which operated from the Winter of 1864 to the Spring of 1865.

By May of 1864, just three months after it began holding prisoners, conditions had deteriorated beyond comprehension. One Union soldier recalled entering the prison on the third of May and saw everywhere before him “ragged” men, “nearly destitute of clothing” with some entirely naked and without shelter but for the “tattered blankets” that were poorly adapted to be tents.[i] Inside the walls of the prison sat thousands of men, many sitting near fires fueled by “pitch-pine knots” that would coat the men in dirt—dirt that water would not remove.[ii] Even if a soldier wished to try to use water to cleanse the dirt caked on his skin, water—particularly clean water—was difficult to obtain. One stream passed through the stockade, and that water source had become infested quite quickly as many men, lacking toilets and suffering from diarrhea and scurvy, had used the area near the stream as their toilet.[iii] A soldier who had waded into the swamp had the filth and dirty water so pervade his body that, in the heat of Summer, he had maggots invade not only his clothes but “his eyes, his nose, his ears, and the openings in his body” including his rectum.[iv] Delirious, he was taken to the prison hospital and died within hours from the invasion and its excruciating pain.[v]

By the Summer of 1864, the prison had expanded from holding 10,000 prisoners to 22,000 in eighteen open acres of land, a third larger than when it held the first prisoners.[vi] With so many men packed into the area, a community emerged in its best and worst forms: “the stronger preyed on the weaker, and even the sick who were unable to defend themselves were robbed of their scanty supplies of food and clothing.”[vii] A prisoner would later recall there being at least a thousand storekeepers that sold various items and food. However, for soldiers with no items with which to barter, robbery became a regular practice—leading a group of men to police the prison, calling themselves “the regulators,” which would not only find the criminals but sentence them to punishment ranging from confining a man to his tent to attaching to the leg of that man a ball and chain to hanging the man.[viii] Rumors were abound that “men, both sick and well,” were murdered for their goods, and one wounded Union soldier accused his nurse, a fellow northerner, of injecting gangrene into his wounded arm while the prisoner slept so the nurse “might destroy his life and fall heir to his clothing.”[ix]

Many of the men would come under the care of a nurse—and therefore may have developed a concern that they would be mistreated so as to have their meager property taken from them as well. Scurvy was prevalent throughout the stockade and was evident when a man developed a “muddy, pale complexion, pale gums, feeble languid muscular motions, lowness of spirits, and fetid breath” only to be followed by a “dusky, dirty, leaden complexion” with “swollen features, spongy, purple, livid, fungoid, bleeding gums, loose teeth” and “spontaneous hemorrhages from mucous canals, and large ill-conditioned spreading ulcers covered with a dark purplish fungus growth.”[x] The conditions were such that on account of the “filthy habits, bad diet, and dejected, depressed condition of the prisoners, their systems had become so disordered that the smallest abrasion of the skin from the rubbing of a shoe, or from the effects of the sun, or from the prick of a splinter, or from scratching, or a mosquito bite, in some cases, took on rapid and frightful ulceration and gangrene.”[xi]

Andersonville Prison.

Even if a prisoner had not the care of a nurse in the small hospital (that because of its size had to refuse many prisoners), any number of fears could consume that prisoner. Although those in the hospital had the comfort of being in a shed, a man in the stockade would “lay upon the bare boards, or upon such ragged blankets” as he possessed with no bedding or straw.[xii] Within a few feet of the boards were “pits for the reception of feces,” which were “almost never unoccupied by those suffering with diarrhea.”[xiii] A Confederate doctor observed the stockade to be filled with “miserable, complaining, dejected, living skeletons, crying for medical aid and food, and cursing their government for its refusal to exchange prisoners, and the ghastly corpses, with their glazed eyeballs staring up into vacant space, with the flies swarming down their open and grinning mouths, and over their ragged clothes, infested with numerous lice, as they lay amongst the sick and dying, formed a picture of helpless, hopeless misery which it would be impossible to portray by words or by the brush.”[xiv] Reverend William John Hamilton recalled after the War that the “best idea” he could give of the “condition of the place is, perhaps, this: I went there with a white linen coat on, and I had not been in there more than ten minutes or a quarter of an hour, when a gentleman drew my attention to the condition of my coat. It was all covered over with vermin, and I had to take my coat off and leave it with one of the guards, and perform my duties in my shirt-sleeves, the place was so filthy.”[xv] The Reverend described the duties he carried out during his visit: “I saw a great many men perfectly naked, walking about through the stockade perfectly nude; they seemed to have lost all regard for delicacy, shame, morality, or anything else. I would frequently have to creep on my hands and knees into the holes that the men had burrowed in the ground and stretch myself out alongside of them to hear their confessions.”[xvi] While the Reverend could recall his time in the prison and remain composed, he knew of other priests that had visited the prison, and “some of them broke down in consequence of their services there,” including one that the Reverend kept at his Macon home for several days as the man was “completely prostrated” and sick for that time.[xvii]

Prisoners who died would be carried from their tents to the nearest narrow street for removal “by Federal negroes detailed to carry off the dead” to the dead-house, a frame covered with tent-cloth.[xviii] In the dead-house, corpses “lie upon the bare ground, and were in most cases covered with filth and vermin” after having already sat in the sun for several hours or even overnight.[xix] Nonetheless, this system created an opportunity for escape for if a man pretended to be dead, he could find himself in the dead-house and then brought to a burial site outside the stockade where—if he had sufficient energy—he could make a run for it and escape his captors.

Escaping the stockade became a focus for many of the prisoners, and their creativity had few bounds. With many men already having dug holes to lower themselves into and hide from the harsh sun, which in this part of Georgia was known to elevate the temperatures to triple digit readings quite regularly in the Summer, if the digging continued deeper and branched out, the rebel guards would be none the wiser.[xx] Tunnels were rumored to be dug in some instances from inside the stockade to under the massive walls and far enough out of sight that the rebel guards would not spot the escapees. Escape—through tunneling or any other method—was only one challenge of many facing a soldier for there was a primary question of where to go once out of the prison and a secondary question of hiding from the hounds that the rebels deployed whenever it was known that a prisoner had escaped—hounds that were difficult to hide from for they even chased men up trees and bit them.[xxi] One resident of Americus (a town not far from Andersonville), named Ambrose Spencer, was later to recall that during a cold January night, his wife woke him as there was a man calling for him at the front door. He recounted the night: “I opened the side window (it was excessively cold) and asked who was there. A voice replied, ‘a friend.’ I answered that I had no friends at that time of night, and very few anyhow in that country. He said that he was a friend of mine and wanted to come near the fence to speak to me. I told him my dog would bite him if he came to the fence; he then approached and said he was an Andersonville prisoner, and asked me, calling me by name, if I lived there. I told him that I was the man and to wait a moment. I dressed myself, went out and chained my dog, and brought the prisoner in. He was nearly frozen; he could hardly stand; he had only one shoe, and that was a poor one, and had a stocking upon the other foot. He was clad in the thin army flannel of the United States, badly worn. He had on a pair of light blue pantaloons which were badly worn. This was on a Wednesday morning; and he told me that he had made his escape from Andersonville on the Saturday previous, that he had been apprehended and taken to Americus, where he had made his escape from the guard the night before, and was directed to my house by a negro. I asked him if he was not nearly frozen; he said he was. I looked at the thermometer then and it was eighteen degrees above zero. This was about two o’clock in the morning—between one and two o’clock.”[xxii]

If escape came to the mind of a less clever prisoner—or if a soldier had reached the end of his line and sought for a way to accelerate his death—the dead-line lingered at the edge of the stockade. Along the walls of the stockade stood sentries that had orders to shoot any trespasser upon the dead-line—a small wooden barrier that was feet away from the stockade wall and created an empty space between the barrier and the wall making it easy for a sentry to take his aim. Many soldiers came to understand the danger of the dead-line when a prisoner, known to the men as Chickamauga for the battle during which the Confederates captured him, crossed the dead-line, received a shot from a sentry, and later died.[xxiii] However, with the water supply contaminated but for those parts nearest to the stockade walls, risking a gunshot wound or even death became a frequent occurrence as recounted by one soldier after the war:

“It was the second day after my entering the prison—the fifth of May. Some men had escaped from the prison the night previous, by means of a tunnel, and the orders that morning, at roll-call, were very strict indeed. They tried to ascertain from what squad the men had gone. We understood the order to be that no one should cross the swamp. I understood the orders to be that if any one crossed from one side of the prison to the other, across the swamp, he could be shot. My squad had had its place assigned to it by the side of the brook, and but a few feet from it. I thought it would be no violation of the order to step to the side of the brook, and wash my hands. I did so. I sat by the side of the brook, and suddenly the boys gave a cry of warning, and I heard a gun snap. I looked up, and saw that the sentinel on the stockade had leveled his piece at me, and fired; but the piece had missed. I immediately got away from that vicinity.”[xxiv]

With the dead-line, lack of shelter, poor water supply, and the harshness of the weather, conditions within the prison brought many men to lose their sanity. A Union man recollected: “I have seen soldiers become insane. One in particular wandered up and down the stream with his clothes off—the little stream of water that ran through the prison. When his meals were taken to him he had not sense enough to know that he should come out and cook them, and he remained most of the time in that water until he died. He was given clothes once or twice, but he refused to put them on. The sun was very hot and burnt his skin, and he became very thin. When I last saw him he was lying dead in the stream. I saw soldiers who had committed suicide. One morning, after I had got up, I saw a man who had hung himself about fifteen or twenty feet from my tent to a stake that was in the ground, used partly to hang our blankets on and other purposes. I suppose the man was insane. He had a wild staring appearance for a few days before, and said that he would sooner be dead than live there; he said that to some of the men alongside of him. His companions had taken him down to the stream several times to wash him off; he was very filthy, lousy and dirty, as most of them were in there; even the cleanest had lice on them. I don’t recollect how many of the men of my company went in there with me—forty-one, I think. Twenty-two died in southern prisons, most of them at Andersonville.”[xxv]

If a prisoner did not escape and sought help from the prison hospital for any number of ailments such as scurvy, diarrhea, or gangrene, admittance to the hospital may have led to even more maladies. A doctor who had worked in the hospital later recalled that many prisoners—perhaps as many as two or three hundred—contracted syphilis from the vaccinations that the rebels forced Union men to receive.[xxvi] The vaccination, meant to protect prisoners from disease, in fact caused sores as large as a man’s hand necessitating amputations to stop the spread of the disease, but it was futile.[xxvii] The doctor did not recall a single instance of a man surviving the sores that came after the vaccination, and some of the surgeons within the hospital admitted that, “in their opinion, it was poisonous matter” being injected into those prisoners.[xxviii] The hospital itself was known to be one place of respite from the crowd in the stockade, but it was also a place where gangrene was also ever present. Another Confederate doctor recounted that nearly “every amputation was followed finally by death, either from the effects of gangrene or from the prevailing diarrhea and dysentery.”[xxix] In short, “without an abundant supply of pure fresh air, nutritious food, and tonics and stimulants,” the treatment of these diseases “was almost useless.”[xxx] With the sick “encrusted with dirt and filth and covered with vermin,” combined with water being poured over wounds and allowed to seep with putrid matter into the ground below and doctors reusing contaminated rags and bandages, there was little mystery to the high mortality rate in the hospital.[xxxi]

Former Prisoners of Andersonville.

If a soldier did not succumb to the conditions and lose all hope for his chance of survival in the prison, the day-to-day diet would wear him down, deplete his energy, and test his mettle. For a full day, a soldier could expect to receive “two ounces of boiled beef and a half pint of rice soup” with the potential for some of that ration to be spoiled and the likelihood for it to be of little nutritional value.[xxxii] While it would remain debated for decades afterward, many soldiers and residents near Andersonville would contend that despite the Confederate government and military being short on supplies—and therefore unable to properly provide for their own soldiers, let alone the prisoners of war—the Georgia countryside was rich with food to be foraged as had been demonstrated during Sherman’s march to the sea.[xxxiii] Yet, the Union men were not permitted to leave the prison for foraging but instead to rely on their rations. By way of comparison, when an American was taken prisoner to the British during the War of 1812, that soldier received “for the first five days in the week 24 ounces of coarse brown bread, 8 ounces of beef, 4 ounces of barley, one-third ounce of onions, one-third ounce of salt, and 16 ounces of turnips daily (or more than 50 ounces of solid food); and for the remaining two days the usual allowance of bread was given with 16 ounces of pickled fish.”[xxxiv] During the Civil War, a rebel prisoner would receive per day 38 ounces of solid food which was only reduced to 34 and one-half ounces in June of 1864.[xxxv] The starvation in Andersonville was evident; those who visited felt compelled to help however possible, as a visitor remembered: “I was a little shy. I did not know that I was allowed to take such things to the patients; and I had been so often arrested that I thought it necessary to be a little shy in what I did, and keep to myself. I would put a potato in my pocket and would turn around and let it drop to this man or others. I did not wish to be observed by anybody. When I first went there, I understood that it was positively against the orders to take anything in.”[xxxvi] When Willis Van Buren of the Second New York Cavalry entered the prison, he observed that starvation was just one of many factors that could destroy a man: “The prisoners, while I was there, were supplied with rations very irregularly; I have seen men in the stockade in a starving condition; at the time I went in the stockade it was so; I saw skeletons, men with the flesh all off their bones, lying and standing around and huddling over small fires—not fires to keep them warm, but fires to cook their victuals. Some were partially covered with blankets and some nearly naked. They were lying about indiscriminately in a starving condition. The place seemed a perfect hell upon earth. I frequently saw the men hunting around the sinks for food that had once passed through men’s bodies, undigested food to eat.”[xxxvii]

A perfect hell upon earth—and overseeing that hell was a man: Captain Henry Wirz. While federals and Confederates would disagree as to the viciousness that he possessed in carrying out his role as warden, the fact remained that he was there; he was witness to the atrocious conditions and heard the complaints from subordinates and prisoners alike that something must be done to improve the lot of these men. But little changed: some men believed after complaints of the bread being raw and lacking nutrition that it improved, but others swore under oath that no, the miserable conditions were without relent. Those men swore under oath for after the War, and after the prison had emptied, Wirz faced a trial before a military commission for his acts as warden. Before the commission came scores of witnesses—some for Wirz but more against—recounting their time in and around the prison. In the end came the verdict not of murder but of “maliciously, willfully, and traitorously” impairing and injuring the health of the 45,000 Union soldiers that passed through the prison, and for that crime came the sentence of death by hanging which occurred on November 10, 1865.[xxxviii]

The Execution of Captain Henry Wirz.

Forty four years later, the United Daughters of the Confederacy saw to it that a monument to Wirz be constructed to remember Wirz for “discharging his duty with such humanity as the harsh circumstances of the times” and redeem him as being more than a “victim of a misdirected popular clamor.” Although Wirz was said by witnesses to have boasted about destroying more “Yankee soldiers than General Lee was killing in the Wilderness,” and despite the fact that he presided over the prison while nearly 13,000 prisoners died, standing in his defense 150 years later remains a monument that no visitor to the cemetery at Andersonville can avoid for it is placed where every visitor—there to pay tribute to the fallen—must walk before arriving at the graves of those Union men.

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Harper’s Weekly, September 16, 1865. Last Best Hope of Earth Archives.

[i] General N. P. Chipman, The Andersonville Prison Trial: The Trial of Captain Henry Wirz, 164.

[ii] See id.

[iii] Id. at 177.

[iv] Id. at 176.

[v] Id.

[vi] See id. at 51.

[vii] Id. at 85.

[viii] Id. at 236.

[ix] Id. at 85.

[x] Id. at 88.

[xi] Id. at 89.

[xii] Id.

[xiii] Id.

[xiv] Id. at 89-90.

[xv] Id. at 144.

[xvi] Id. at 146-47.

[xvii] Id. at 146.

[xviii] Id. at 91.

[xix] Id.

[xx] Id. at 118.

[xxi] See id. at 119.

[xxii] Id. at 151-52.

[xxiii] See id. at 165.

[xxiv] Id.

[xxv] Id. at 174.

[xxvi] See id. at 243.

[xxvii] See id.

[xxviii] Id.

[xxix] Id. at 96.

[xxx] Id.

[xxxi] Id. at 90.

[xxxii] See id. at 107.

[xxxiii] See id.

[xxxiv] Id.

[xxxv] Id.

[xxxvi] Id. at 127.

[xxxvii] Id. at 177.

[xxxviii] See id. at 426.

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